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My First Drive in Switzerland

Minus five degrees, a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side, a town I’d never been to before, trams, new road signs, give way to the right, no street map, no local passenger, no clue! Surely nothing else could go wrong… could it?

My first time driving in Basel was, well, interesting. It was December, and a Bise was blowing cold dry winds from Siberia through the town. I had sinusitis from the dryness of the air, and my host wanted me to drop her off in town. I could borrow her car for the time she would be away so I could explore.

My main worry was that I might change gears with the window opener. First junction I came to what did I do? Changed gear with the window opener. Oops! Must remember, left hand steer, right hand gear.

“Give way! That tram will turn in front of us!” shouted my local guide, suddenly. There was a distinct note of panic in her voice as she foresaw my impending collision with the No. 2 tram that did indeed turn in front of me. “How did you know that would turn there?” I asked innocently, “He didn’t indicate…” “Experience.” came the reply. “You’ll soon learn.” I didn’t realise just how steep my learning curve was going to be that day.

With my guide telling me when to give way, and when cars on the right had to stop for me, my confidence began to grow. The sunshine flooded into the car – and dazzled me in the middle of a rather large junction. I stopped to get my bearings.

“Don’t stop! You never stop in Aeschenplatz – keep on driving because if the trams don’t get you, the cars will. And be careful, there’s a policeman over there.”

I looked, but failed to see anybody of any significance. “Look there! That man’s got a big gun! Is he a policeman?” I asked, innocently. “No, he’s just on the way to military service. You have to give way to him though – on a pedestrian crossing you have to stop for him even if he has just one foot on the lines.”

After seeing his assault rifle, there was no way I wasn’t going to give way to him. He looked very friendly, but you can’t be too careful when it comes to people with assault rifles. They might have some bullets, too…

As I stopped moving, the policeman came out of the background and started waving at me. Gulp!  “He wants you to move along, but be careful of the trams – they come from all angles here. Oh, and give way to cars on the right and that pedestrian on the left will want to cross in a minute. Mind the bicycle!!!”

How do people manage, I thought to myself. No wonder they call it “Ashen” platz – it must be named after the ashen faces of the drivers passing through here! The policeman kept his gun hidden as I lurched into action.

A little bit further and it was time to deposit my passenger at her destination. “How do I get back?” I asked nervously. “No problem, just take that road over there and keep on turning right…” She shouted over her shoulder, disappearing into the strange street.

Alone, I realised that twilight was on it’s way. The blast of cold air that came in the car window brought a swift end to my confidence as my breath began to freeze on the inside of the glass.

I didn’t really know where I was, but I was having fun finding out. I noticed that even at the traffic lights it had been worked out logically so no two streams of traffic could collide. Well, mostly.

Hmmm…. there’s an Irish Pub I thought to myself. Must check that out later! I carried on driving as the darkness drew in. I couldn’t work out how to switch the fan heater on so my breath began to settle on the windscreen. As the darkness descended, the outside of the glass began to ice over. Foolishly I tried to clear it with the windscreen washers. Slowly a thin film of ice began to form… just as I drove past a cinema on the left and a theatre on the right.

I couldn’t see which way to turn at the junction, but all the people at the tram stop were waving at me to turn right. They were helping me from both sides. Friendly place, Basel, I thought! I couldn’t quite see where I was yet, but I knew I was on tram lines. The road was a little narrow here so I was glad no other cars were behind me.

As the tram rounded the bend in front of me, and a car went past me on what I thought was the pavement it occurred to me that the road I was on might not have been intended for cars at all… I stalled the engine.

I could hear a bell ringing – isn’t it nice to hear the sounds of Christmas in a strange place? Until they’re joined by another bell coming down the hill from the right. I was just about to become a tram sandwich… “Where’s this car’s bl*&dy reverse!” I shouted to the thin air as I wound down the window once again…

As I kangarooed up the hill to the right, cutting up some poor Swiss driver who had not travelled through the middle of the tram stop as I had, I noticed how polite the Swiss were. Even the cyclists waved vigourously at me as they passed me on their way up the hill. “Left hand steer, right hand gear!” I repeated to myself as I frantically hunted for second, the engine straining as the blacked out Mercedes behind me sat patiently on my back seat, his headlights on full, completely illuminating the inside of my car, err, helpfully.

I got back on my main route again. I knew I hadn’t gone far as the medieval tower gate I had seen earlier came by again. But where was that turning?

Frantically I took a side street to get away from the traffic racing around the inner ring road. Wrong side street. There was that tower again. At least I knew I wasn’t lost… I’d seen it before. Past it I raced over the junction. It didn’t look like Aeschenplatz, but as I remembered the mantra “You never stop in Aeschenplatz” I thought I had better not take any chances and accelerated away.

I had to turn right. But which right was right? I took a different turning, but once again, I came back to the tower, my friend, the Spalentor. Twice more I drove past the tower. After a while I found myself back at the place where my host had left me, with only ten minutes to go until their job was finished. I parked. I waited. My phone rang. “Hi, can you pick me up? Did you have any problems?”

“Problems? Me? No, none at all…”

This article was first published on 18th October, 2003 and was written by Nigel MacGeorge


Comment from Peter
Time 6th March, 2011 at 4:16 pm

fun to read article … but as i can remember from my first drive “on the wrong side of the road” in the UK not fun to be in the driver’s seat 🙂
greetings from one who was raised in the Spalenvorstadt … yes, very close to “your” Spalentor 🙂 , peter

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